Thursday, 29 May 2008

James Cuno on the Icklingham Bronzes

One of the issues that I hoped would be addressed by James Cuno was the decision to display one of the Icklingham bronzes in a loan exhibition, The Fire of Hephaistos (1996) no. 31, at Harvard University Art Museums. The piece, on loan from Shelby White and Leon Levy, was "Found in Suffolk, in southeastern England; purchased in 1988".

And here is the issue, on the very first page of Chapter 1, "Political Issues", of Who Owns Antiquity? (I received my review copy today.) Cuno notes the Fire of Hephaistos exhibition included bronzes from some private collections. One of Cuno's Harvard colleagues "objected to our borrowing a work from a particular private collection and claimed that it had been purchased in contravention of international law". Cuno explains in a rather vague way (without giving too much detail for the casual reader):
The work in question had been part of a controversy involving the British Museum and when I sought that museum director's advice, he assured me that so far as the British government and British Museum were concerned, the controversy was resolved and he had no objection to our exhibiting—and publishing—the Roman bronze, which we did.
What he does not mention is that the "controversy" was far from resolved for the Suffolk farmer, John Browning, from whose land the bronzes were reported to have been taken.

And why does Cuno fail to mention that the bronze in question had been removed from Icklingham or that it was acquired by Leon Levy and Shelby White?

Is it because Cuno wishes to portray the couple as "philanthropists and collectors of antiquities"? [p. 200 n. 7] Or is there some other reason? His book went to press before he could take account of the fact that Shelby White had returned some of her "Glories" to Italy, a public admission that the couple were acquiring recently surfaced antiquities.

Nor is there any mention by Cuno that Fire of Hephaistos was one of the exhibitions discussed by David Gill and Christopher Chippindale ("Material consequences of contemporary classical collecting." American Journal of Archaeology 104 [2000] 463-511 [JSTOR]). Is he really unaware of the literature?

So many questions raised from the opening paragraphs of chapter 1. What other issues will be raised?

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Read also James Cuno's Illogic by Larry Rothfield

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